Plea for help!

My blog today – from my new blog site (after I spent much of Saturday transferring over the content from iWeb is a plea for help on my MRes dissertation project from the research community #phdchat.  Yesterday, I posed a question on #phdchat that got a lot of responses: what do you call participant-observation that is based from memory – and is it a valid data collection method?  Let me explain.

Recently, I lost my primary case site where I was going to do a case study with 6 day participant-observation, interviews * 2 with 3 program managers, and documentary analysis of project management methodologies, PMO charters etc.  My plan B (now Plan A) was to move the case site to a location where I have worked before.  My change to the data collection is to interview circa 15 project managers with unstructured in-depth interviews on identity, and continue with documentary analysis (no change here).

What has changed significantly is that the 5-6 days of observing project managers is impractical as I can’t observe 15 managers except in the general sense, and I can’t get close to the action due to their primary work being all over place, and I would only get to see them at temporary desks sending emails…at best.  So I got to thinking about the years I had worked there, and the events, presentations, and meetings etc.  I did get to observe most of these project managers in action in some form or another.   The key is point us that I never made any notes.

So what I’m thinking is to go back through emails, presentations, critical events (there were some) with most of the project managers I’m interviewing and construct accounts from my perspective.  The idea is still the same in that I want to see how ‘what people say’, verse ‘what I SAW them do’, and the documentary evidence converges or contradicts in order to same some thing useful and, valid – kind of like a retrospective diary.

Is this a valid data collection method?  If I was interviewing someone it could be called narrative history or oral history perhaps – but I’m writing it.  Alternatively, I could call it auto-ethnography – however, here I am not the subject.  Is there something called auto-narrative history hehehe?

I believe it is participant-observation – just an odd form of it.  I could use say Spradley’s framework (1980, p78) to make it somewhat systematic!


What would you call it?  Or is my thinking here just nonsense???  Help me find a way to use what I think could be useful data for compare/contrasting purposes.  And, most importantly, be my heroes and share some references of research projects or articles that have implemented the same strategy legitimately.  I will need some backing I would think to get this past the external examiner!

PS. I hope this blog works ok!  It is the first time I’m using WordPress.

  1. June 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    If you are seeing this, the new blog is working just fine, Mike! I will leave it for the expertise of others to answer your questions, but I know that any emails, notes, and the like, will be valuable. I’m assuming that your specific recollection may also have a place, but get it recorded now. Some have better memories than others. When I mentioned oral history, in a different context than you are seeking, the study I thought of was certainly referring to participant memories.

  2. June 27, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Congrats on the new blog!

    I have thought a bit more about your issue over the weekend, and have 2 follow-ups:
    1. Speak with your supervisor; direct him or her to this post or have a conversation, and follow whatever this person suggests.
    2. Do you have ethical or IRB approval to use those materials? If so, use away. If not, then I am not sure how you can use emails and such of others. It is one thing to use your experiences, but another to use materials related to these other people as the materials are not otherwise public.

    Let’s see what others think. Consider being more specific in your request for assistance in #phdchat as well.

    Interested in how this progresses.


    • June 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm

      Hi Jeffrey,

      Point 1: taken – just exploring!
      Point 2: I’m not using the emails for example as data – only as pointers to my reconstruction of events and observations.

      Best regards


  3. lizit
    June 28, 2011 at 11:00 am

    What you are describing sounds more like a form of ethnography than anything else, but you have the major issue of not having got ethics approval in advance of making your observations, and you have not kept field notes. Both of these are problematic.
    As you are wanting to contrast what PMs say with what they do, I wonder if there is scope for reviewing your methodology to include questions around practice you have observed?

    My area is different from yours, but in some ways I have faced a similar issue. My research is based in an area in which I have been deeply embedded for several years. I have access to a lot of confidential material in private forums, I am a member of a face-to-face discussion group and I have got personal notes and diaries over a lengthy period. One of my issues was whether I could legitimately incorporate this data in my own story or not. In the end, my solution has been to split myself in 3 – to include myself as a participant, to have a voice as a participant observer in the domain, and to have a more objective/distanced research voice.

    Like Jeffrey says, you need to discuss this with your supervisor – it’s a bit of a hornets nest!

    • June 28, 2011 at 11:44 am

      Love it – thank you @lizit I’m enjoy hearing what others think about this.

      As a researcher our experiences are influencing how we think. All I’m suggesting is getting the experiences down on paper – then – reflexively review the notes as data. New insights will be possible during the data analysis phase, and it seems to strengthen any validity claims on interview data, albeit if the memory based participant-observation is a little hazy and lacking detail.

      Interestingly, I’m using active interviewing so if I disagree with a project manager’s statement – I challenge it!! Trying to get underneath – so I suppose as part of the interviewing I’m already incorporating this memory based observations…

      Interesting question about ethics…..but I think the observations are mine, and I am making sure all participants are protected through anonymizing and disguising.

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